cover image From Slave Ship to Freedom Road

From Slave Ship to Freedom Road

Julius Lester. Dial Books, $17.99 (40pp) ISBN 978-0-8037-1893-7

Twenty-one of Brown's 36 paintings that were originally included in an exhibit entitled ""From Slavery to Freedom"" are showcased here and provide the inspiration for Lester's (To Be a Slave) strong and searing text. In double-page spreads with usually one, sometimes two paintings to each, the book traces the African American slave experience through images beginning with the Middle Passage and concluding with images of post-Civil War emancipation. Lester's words are most effective when they draw readers into the paintings themselves, as in one spread including Brown's Sheol, in which the author imagines the voices of three captives shackled together in the foreboding hold of a slave ship. In giving a voice to these three captives, Lester demands that readers give identity to the faceless human cargo: endless rows of heads and shoulders that alternate with rows of endless feet. He then breaks from the narrative to address the raw emotions of readers: ""You have memories of those Africans too. Even if you're white. Especially if you're white."" Alongside other paintings, the author tells stories of his own heritage (""My slave ancestors were house servants"") and also includes three separate ""Imagination Exercises"" (one for whites, one for blacks and one for both whites and blacks: ""What if your peers... deemed you honorable and good for beating someone?""). While the author raises questions that will likely provoke much impassioned discussion, these jarring shifts in narrative perspective interrupt any fluid reading of the book as the story of a journey. Brown's paintings provide the cohesive narrative line and have a stunning power of their own, but the confrontational tone of the text may usurp readers' attention. In the end, some readers may be left with questions about the artist and his inspiration (an artist's note is, unfortunately, absent), and most will likely require an adult standing by to help them grapple with the provocative issues raised here. Ages 10-up. (Jan.)